Blue Marble

Some Corals Survived A-Bombs, Others Didn't

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 8:17 PM EDT

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Fifty years ago the last atomic bomb test shook the Pacific's Bikini Atoll. Now corals are flourishing here again—though with 42 fewer species than prior to the bomb blasts. At least 28 of the missing corals appear to be genuine local extinctions, victims of the 23 bombs exploded at Bikini between 1946 and 1958. An international team has been surveying biodiversity at the atoll, including diving into the 1954 Bravo Crater, site of the most powerful American atomic bomb ever exploded (15 megatons, 1,000 times bigger than Hiroshima). The Bravo bomb vaporized three islands, raised water temperatures to 100,00 degrees F, shook islands 125 miles away and left a crater 1.25 miles wide and 240 feet deep.

The 1946 point of view.

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Half Australia's Shorebirds Gone, Cambodia's Recovering

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 2:56 AM EDT

20_1.jpg First the good news. Storks, pelicans, ibises, and other rare waterbirds from Cambodia's famed Tonle Sap region are making a comeback. Some of the waterbird species have rebounded 20-fold since 2001. That's when the Wildlife Conservation Society partnered with the Ministry of Environment of the Royal Government of Cambodia to employ former hunters and egg poachers as round-the-clock park rangers to monitor the birds. The upshot is that the colonies of Tonle Sap (Great Lake), including the largest, and in some cases, only breeding populations of seven globally threatened large waterbird species in Southeast Asia, have increased from a total of 2,500 breeding pairs in 2001 to 10,000 pairs in 2007.

Now the bad news. An alarming new study reveals that Australia's shorebirds have suffered a massive collapse in numbers over the past 25 years. A large scale aerial survey study covering the eastern third of the continent by researchers at the University of New South Wales has identified that migratory shorebirds populations there plunged by 73% between 1983 and 2006. In the same timeframe, Australia's 15 species of resident shorebirds have declined by 81%. The study is published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation.

"This is a truly alarming result: in effect, three-quarters of eastern Australia's millions of resident and migratory shorebirds have disappeared in just one generation," says Richard Kingsford, one of the study authors. Of the 10 wetlands supporting the highest number of shorebirds, four had been substantially reduced in size during the survey period. And not only in Australia. "The wetlands and resting places that they rely on for food and recuperation are shrinking virtually all the way along their migration path, from Australia through Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and up through Asia into China and Russia," says Kingsford.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Oil Trumps Whales

| Sat Apr. 12, 2008 3:18 PM EDT

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Northern right whale with calf,
Eubalaena glacialis. Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources

The Bush administration wants to open 5.6 million acres in the Bering Sea off Alaska to oil and gas leasing, including an area north of the Aleutian Islands near Bristol Bay designated critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale. The proposal was published in Tuesday's Federal Register by the Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service (MMS), as reported by the Center for Biological Diversity. North Pacific right whales once ranged from California to Alaska and across the North Pacific to Russia and Japan. They were decimated by commercial whaling and remain the most endangered large whale in the world. Fewer than 50 individuals remain in the Bering Sea population.

"Drilling in Bristol Bay would be drilling through the heart of the most important habitat of the most endangered whale on the planet," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. "If the North Pacific right whale is to have any chance of survival, we must protect its critical habitat, not auction it off to oil companies." The CBD reports the leasing proposal was made the same day the National Marine Fisheries Service, another federal agency, published a final rule in the Federal Register naming portions of the lease area as critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale. Ooops.

"Unfortunately, for the right whale it's one step forward, two steps back," said Cummings. "One branch of the federal government is acting to protect the critical habitat of the North Pacific right whale, while another branch is simultaneously proposing to destroy it." It's also reminiscent of the recent MMS decision to lease important polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea at the same time the US Fish and Wildlife Service was considering offering the bears protection under the Endangered Species Act. Both agencies are part of Dirk Kempthorne's Department of the Oilterior, uhm, Interior.

The latest leasing proposal would sell the North Aleutian Basin lease in 2011… One more reason we need the Right President to protect the Right Whales. Not to mention the right one to wean us off the oil economy rather than enable it.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Gavin Newsom's San Francisco: The New Windy City?

| Fri Apr. 11, 2008 9:51 PM EDT

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It is the greenest home in the city of San Francisco, and one of the greenest in the world. Nestled in the city's Mission district amidst old and colorful Victorians, La Casa Verde is built entirely from sustainable and recycled materials, has a green roof and solar panels, and draws 40% of its energy from a single wind turbine (.pdf), which rises 45 feet in the air.

San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom loves it—unsurprising, considering the many green initiatives he's supported in the city. He couldn't stop talking about how "great" and "fantastic" he thought La Casa was as he toured the building this morning, and listened attentively as homeowner Robin Wilson described the building's many green features: the countertops made from discarded rice hulls, the recycled flooring, the chandelier whose shimmering LED lights will last for over 15 years. "This is not a modest or symbolic effort," he commented. "This is real. This is not fanciful."

And for San Francisco residents, "real" green housing is about to be a lot more attainable. Speaking to reporters after the tour, Newsom announced that he is creating a residential wind working group, tasked with figuring out how to revamp the city's zoning and building codes to allow wind turbines on private lots. If implemented, it would be the first urban program of its kind.

Lock Up CO2 In DVDs

| Thu Apr. 10, 2008 10:26 PM EDT

71519130_a643617ede_m.jpg Here's an idea. Carbon dioxide removed from smokestack emissions could become a valuable raw material for the production of polycarbonate plastics in eyeglass lenses, car headlamps, DVDs, CDs, and drink bottles. The processes involved would offer less expensive, safer and greener products, researchers suggested in two separate reports presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

"Carbon dioxide is readily available, especially from the smokestack of industries that burn coal and other fossil fuels," says chemist Thomas Müller. "And it's a very cheap starting material. If we can replace more expensive starting materials with CO2, then you'll have an economic driving force." There's already a huge market, and millions of tons of polycarbonates are sold each year. But what hasn't been factored in is that these hard, tough materials represent what Müller calls "intriguing sinks" for exhaust carbon dioxide. In fact, there's no other consumer product with such potential for removing CO2 from the environment.

So, we may be drinking from a CO2 plastic bottle (well, hopefully not) and watching movies on waste-CO2 DVDs (well, preferably streaming) soon. "I would say it's a matter of a few years before CO2-derived polymers are available to the public," says Müller.

Good idea: make polycarbonates from waste CO2. Better idea: make less pollution and less polycarbonate plastics.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Flower Scent Destroyed by Air Pollution

| Thu Apr. 10, 2008 9:16 PM EDT

86496697_f9d2addeda_m.jpg Air pollution is destroying the fragrance of flowers and preventing pollinating insects from following scent trails to their source. The research from the University of Virginia indicates that power plants and automobiles are behind at least some of the decline of wild pollinators, like bees.

According to Jose Fuentes, co-author of the study, the scent molecules produced by flowers in the less polluted environment of the 1800s could travel up to 4,000 feet. Today, downwind of major cites, they may travel only 700 feet. This makes it increasingly difficult for pollinators to find flowers. The result, potentially, is a vicious cycle where pollinators struggle to find enough food to sustain their populations, and populations of flowering plants don't get pollinated sufficiently to proliferate and diversify. [Sound familiar?]

The scent molecules produced by flowers are highly volatile and quickly bond with pollutants such as ozone, hydroxyl and nitrate radicals, which destroy their aromas. So the flowers no longer smell like flowers. This forces pollinators to search farther and longer and possibly to rely more on sight and less on smell. Using a mathematical model of how scents travel with the wind, the team found it apparent that air pollution destroys the aroma of flowers by as much as 90 percent from periods before automobiles and heavy industry. The more air pollution in a region, the greater the destruction of the flower scents.

Just in case we don't already have enough reasons to tackle emissions.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Bright Lights, Green City

| Wed Apr. 9, 2008 5:04 PM EDT

time_square_york_271314_l.jpgIn the city that never sleeps, where the lights of Times Square blaze 24/7, electricity is at a premium for the more than 8 million New Yorkers. Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that New York City is seeking proposals for the greening of NYC. Private developers will be contracted do all the legwork to outfit city-owned buildings with solar power—by purchasing, installing, and maintaining the solar installations. Developers can choose from among 11 potential sites throughout the cities 5 boroughs.

The solar power installations will have a total capacity of two megawatts, which is more than the 1.6-megawatt Google headquarters' solar array installation—the largest corporate installation in the United States. It is estimated that Google's solar panels will generate 2.6 megawatt hours—enough to power 1,000 homes in California—and offset 3.6 million pounds of CO2 emissions per year.

New York City is just one of 25 cities chosen to participate in the Solar America Initiative, which has partnered with the Department of Energy in order to make solar energy costs competitive with those of traditional energy sources. By 2015, the city hopes to increase its solar capacity to 8.1 megawatts, more than 5 times Google's current capacity.

—Joyce Tang

CO2 Maps Highlight Worst Offenders

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 10:06 PM EDT

A new, high-resolution, interactive map of US carbon dioxide emissions finds unexpected trouble spots. Too many emissions have been blamed on the northeastern US when the southeastern US is a much larger source than previously estimated. This according to Kevin Gurney at Purdue University, project leader. The maps and system, called Vulcan, show CO2 emissions at more than 100 times more detail than was available before. Previously, CO2 emissions data were reported, at best, monthly at a state level. Vulcan examines CO2 emissions hourly at local levels. Below is a great YouTube video of how it works, told in Geek, but probably understandable to nonGeek speakers or those with Geek as a Second Language. Look hard enough and you can almost find your own tailpipe in the maps.

The three-year project was funded by NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy under the North American Carbon Program, and involved researchers from Purdue University, Colorado State University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Vulcan will revolutionize carbon cycle research. It's considered the next generation in our understanding of fossil fuel emissions, with enormous implications for climate science, carbon trading and climate change mitigation work.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Small Nuclear Exchange Would Make Global Ozone Hole

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 9:30 PM EDT

509px-Nagasakibomb.jpg A limited nuclear weapons exchange between Pakistan and India using their current arsenals could create a near-global ozone hole, triggering human health problems and wreaking environmental havoc for at least a decade. According to a new computer modeling study from Brian Toon and Michael Mills of the University of Colorado Boulder, the ozone losses would be much larger than losses estimated in previous "nuclear winter" and "ultraviolet spring" scenarios.

A nuclear war between the two countries involving 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear devices on each side would cause massive urban fires and loft as much as 5 million metric tons of soot about 50 miles into the stratosphere. The soot would absorb enough solar radiation to heat surrounding gases, setting in motion a series of chemical reactions that would break down the stratospheric ozone layer protecting Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation—including ozone losses of 25 percent to 40 percent at mid-latitudes, and 50 to 70 percent at northern high latitudes.

Two 2006 studies led by Toon showed that such a small-scale regional nuclear war could produce as many fatalities as all of World War II and disrupt global climate for a decade or more. A nuclear exchange involving 100 15-kiloton, Hiroshima-type weapons is only 0.03 percent of the total explosive power of the world's nuclear arsenal, he said.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Beyond Propaganda: New Republic Rolls Out BP-Sponsored Enviro Blog

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 8:20 PM EDT

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So, The New Republic has added a new blog to its roster: the Environment & Energy blog, which is sponsored, nay "powered," by BP. (Quips blogger Andrew Daniller: "I assumed their whole magazine was sponsored by military contractors.") Maybe this is where the blogosphere is headed, magazines selling off their real estate like major league ballparks, to the highest bidder. And we're all for creative ways to bring in revenue to support the cause, but there's a qualitative difference between running BP ads in a magazine and having the BP logo emblazoned on all energy and environment content—i.e. all the content that could relate to BP. Certainly the sponsorship raises issues of editorial-advertising line-blurring, potential self-censorship, the deterioration of journalistic self-respect, etc.

The company formerly known as British Petroleum (it now prefers "beyond petroleum"), despite furious rebranding efforts, has a typically abysmal environmental record: "Although BP put $500 million into solar power between 2000 and 2005, it spent $8.4 billion exploring and producing petroleum in 2004 alone." And BP at one time lobbied hard to open ANWR to drilling. Then again, so did TNR, asserting in 2002 that the plan to drill in the wildlife refuge "would almost certainly cause little environmental damage."

So what are environmentally- and ethically-minded TNR staffers to do? It's already a bit late for a preemptive strike against the sponsorship (like the one last year at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, where gutsy reporters rebelled and sunk a management-hatched plan to allow FedEx to sponsor a series on world business). BP must see the TNR blog as a relatively safe forum, one where it won't face persistent, searing criticism. So why not test BP's assumption? Why not scrutinize and heap journalistic abuse on BP and Big Oil till they can't take it anymore? TNR staffer Bradford Plumer engaged BP a bit today, calling out the company for "shamefully working behind the scenes in Congress to oppose strong climate legislation." That's a start.

—Justin Elliott